NIU Today | NIU team wins Catalyst Award for Leading Change


NIU staff members have been named winners of the Catalyst Award for Leading Change, honoring institutions at the forefront of educational innovation.

Founded in 2005, the annual Catalyst Awards recognize and honor innovation and excellence in the Anthology global community of practice, where millions of educators and learners work every day to redefine what is possible when leveraging technology. Winners are selected by a cross-functional team of Anthology experts and represent the very best in their field. The Catalyst Awards were expanded when Anthology and Blackboard combined in 2021.

The Catalyst Award for Leading Change recognizes institutions that have used Blackboard and/or Anthology solutions to implement transformational initiatives generating change on campus and in their academic ecosystems, with measurable results. Winners champion active with others, cooperation, and sharing.

Specifically, NIU was recognized for its comprehensive Learning Management System (LMS) review during the 2020-2021 academic year.

NIU’s LMS, Blackboard, is one of the university’s most-used information technology systems. While faculty usage and overall satisfaction with Blackboard was high, the university had not formally rated the LMS in a number of years.

The LMS is one of the most critical applications for most institutions of higher education, and selecting an LMS is a complex, time-consuming and challenging project. NIU’s LMS review was jointly coordinated by the Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning (CITL) and the Division of Information Technology (DOiT), with a task force that included executive, technical and advisory committees.

Jason Rhode, associate vice president for teaching, learning, and digital education, and Matthew Parks, associate vice president for IT and Chief Information Officer, served as the project’s co-chairs, with Susan Smith of Institutional Effectiveness serving as project coordinator.

Of the three LMS platforms reviewed, Blackboard Learn received the highest review score and was recommended for renewal for another five-year contract term, through August 2026.

“The review was a thorough, comprehensive effort to evaluate the leading learning management systems in the higher education market,” Rhode said.

“The systematic evaluation included extensive input from faculty, staff and students on not only their current satisfaction with Blackboard but also what features are desired in a modern LMS to support innovative teaching and learning,” Rhode added. “Throughout, we frequently heard from participants, leadership and vendors that it was among the most robust and rigorous reviews they had seen.”

Each vendor provided virtual demonstrations for faculty, staff and students. The technical committee then built sample courses in each system with identical content and conducted focus-group sessions with the advisory committee and other NIU constituent groups. Focus groups rated the systems’ functionality.

“When the LMS review began in October 2020, faculty, staff and students were already dealing with the rapid transition to remote delivery and the uncertainty that continued through the summer and fall due to the pandemic,” Parks said. “We needed our process to be thorough and provide ample opportunity for representation and feedback to justify a change of this magnitude. To that end, we conducted the review based on five key principles: open and transparent, inclusive, ethical and compliant, future-proofed, and grounded in institutional culture and context.”

Members of the executive committee published an article about the review in a journal (the Community College Enterprise) and presented at six conferences in the summer and fall of 2021 and spring of 2022. At each presentation, NIU shared its toolkit of resources with a Creative Commons license for other institutions to use and adapt; the toolkit has been accessed nearly 100 times. The university also consulted with six universities on conducting a successful learning management system review.

“Most importantly, we’re providing a world-class learning management system for our faculty and students,” said Stephanie Richter, an advisory committee co-chair and director of teaching excellence and support for CITL.

“As a result of the review, and with the endorsement of NIU’s Presidential Commission on the Status of Persons with Disabilities, NIU implemented Blackboard Ally in a matter of weeks. After a successful pilot in Fall 2021, Blackboard Ally was enabled for all courses at the institution. At the time of the nomination, NIU had seen 30,410 downloads of alternative formats in 1,505 courses. In addition, faculty had made 246 accessibility fixes in 53 courses.”

Richter said the success of the LMS review has also established a foundation for the change management needed to fully migrate to the Blackboard Ultra Course View, a completely redesigned teaching and learning environment that is modern, intuitive, and mobile-friendly. NIU has officially set on Dec. 31, 2023 timeline for faculty to transition all courses to the Ultra Course View.

“While this is still stressful for faculty, given how critical the LMS is to teaching and learning, the process of conducting an LMS review and selecting Blackboard has instilled confidence in faculty that Ultra Course View provides the tools and features they need,” Richter said .

NIU’s team was announced alongside other Catalyst Award winners during Anthology Together, Anthology’s annual user conference held July 11-14 in Orlando, Florida.

“We’re pleased to honor this year’s Catalyst Award winners for their commitment to improving the educational experience for all learners through EdTech and sharing these insights with the wider community,” said Jim Milton, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer at Anthology. “We’re proud to partner with institutions who are innovating to advance student success.”

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